Know Before You List: A Dean's College Search Memoir

In my last post, I encouraged folks to approach the college search and admission process as one of reflection and self-discovery. There is no magic manual, no surefire way to avoid being distracted from your commitment to enjoying and learning from the college process. Interestingly enough, a lot of my advice on this process actually comes from my own college search misadventures. I humbly submit it to you, internet, and hope it will help you look at this process a little differently.

I grew up in a small town in upstate New York, the Finger Lakes to be exact. Much of the area is really beautiful, and my town was rich in history (birth place of women’s right, y’all!), albeit a bit economically depressed. I attended the local high school with my siblings and all my cousins on my mom’s side, where about 45% of my graduating class attended a four-year college (mostly public or in-state or both). My parents are some of the smartest, hardest working, and funniest folks I know. They didn’t graduate from college so as my sisters and I applied to college, we were all learning about the college search process together.

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My college list started with places I knew- where my older sister was a junior, where my cousin was a first year. My guidance counselor was often busy doing guidance counseling (making sure kids showed up for school, registering students for classes, counseling students with anxiety) to do much college counseling. We did take a test to help us determine what we might “want to be when we grow up.” I can’t remember for the life of me what my results were, so obviously it left quite the impression. Needless to say, I was in the driver’s seat in making a list about where I might go to college… which was clearly dangerous since I knew basically nothing.

When one of my favorite teachers came to school with SMALL LIBERAL ARTS COLLEGE emblazoned across the chest that normally sported LARGE-ISH IVY LEAGUE SCHOOL’s name in Big Red letters (anyone catch what I did there?), which we all knew was his alma mater… I took notice. I queried him about the new sweatshirt and his response was something like “Ah! Yes. Small Liberal Arts College: it’s a small liberal arts college, beautiful, smart folks. You’d like it.” I stared at him a bit blankly. “What’s liberal arts?” He laughed kindly and said “it’s an education that teaches you to learn to think and read and write and argue about lots of different subjects and ideas. It’s an education for students who like to be students.” SOLD. Sometimes I like to think about this as the beginning of my tenure as an admission professional, as I still use that description to describe a liberal arts education to this day.

Here’s ERDean’s piece of Advice #1: First build an understanding of the college and university landscape. Learn about lots of different kinds of colleges and educational styles before building your list. Don’t make a list of colleges that you know by name but know nothing about. Don’t go straight to the rankings. Spend time understanding the differences and similarities between a liberal arts college and a research university, between public and private institutions. Dig into what a core curriculum is and what it might mean for you as a student to take one. Find out what classifies a school as technical school. What does Research I mean?

Second comes the hard part: reflection. As you learn about these different kinds of institutions and educational models, hold them up against how you like to learn, how you best engage with your peers, your teachers, and ideas. Don’t just stick to what you know- or what you think you know. You need to understand the field- and who you are as a player- before you play the game. If you have family and counselors suggesting schools to you for your list, make sure they know about how you like to learn and engage with others so they can make good suggestions.

Up next: “Money makes the world go round” or Have an Awkward Conversation with Your Family

Posted in: Emily